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Wal-Mart, Kmart Remove ‘Smack’ Album

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation’s largest retailer, yanked a controversial album by the British rock act Prodigy from 2,300 stores on Friday because of objectionable lyrics contained in a song called “Smack My Bitch Up.”

This is apparently the first time Wal-Mart has pulled a record based on the content of its lyrics after it already was on the shelves. The decision is certain to have a significant impact on sales because the company is one of the largest sellers of records in the country.

Kmart, the giant Troy, Mich.-based mass merchandiser, also pulled the recording from its 2,100 stores late Friday. Both retailers decided to take the album off their shelves following a report published Wednesday in The Times.

“Smack My Bitch Up"--a tune that critics say glorifies domestic violence--was released last week as a single on Madonna’s Maverick label, which is half-owned by Warner Bros. Records, a subsidiary of Time Warner. The song is also included on Prodigy’s Time Warner-distributed “The Fat of the Land” album, which debuted in April at No. 1 on Billboard’s national pop chart and has since sold 2 million copies in the U.S.

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The controversy underscores problems with the system used by record companies and retailers to monitor and label music with potentially offensive lyrics. Some albums, mostly by rap groups, have become lightening rods for criticism while seemingly offensive lyrics by rock groups frequently slip under the radar.

Janice Rocco, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, applauded Wal-Mart and Kmart for pulling the record.

“Given their internal policies on monitoring lyrics, it is the only appropriate thing to do,” Rocco said. “It sends a message to women and men who shop at their stores that these companies do not want to be a part of the problem in our culture that perpetuates violence against women.”

Warner Music continues to back the song, which Prodigy says has nothing to do with domestic abuse, and blames The Times for instigating the controversy.

“In the past five months, we have not received a single complaint about this recording from anybody,” said Bob Merlis, senior vice president of worldwide corporate communications for Warner Bros. Records. “In fact, the album was critically acclaimed around the country. . . . In my opinion, the L.A. Times seized on an opportunity and in essence created the news--and then covered it.”

NOW’s Rocco disagreed. “It was Time Warner that released an incredibly offensive recording with an equally offensive marketing campaign. The company made some very poor business decisions in this matter, and I felt compelled to comment on them.”

Rocco said NOW intends to request a meeting next week with the top brass at Time Warner to discuss the content of the company’s product. On Friday, Richard Parsons, president of Time Warner, said, “If NOW wanted to meet with executives from Time Warner’s businesses, Time Warner would be glad to do that.”

Prodigy producer Liam Howlett has denied that the group’s song is about hitting women. “ ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ is a phrase [that means] doing anything intensely, like being on stage--going for extreme manic energy,” Howlett said.

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That interpretation isn’t apparent in the song, which repeats the lyric a dozen times, or in the 3,000 Warner-financed promotional posters making the lyric into a slogan for display in record stores.

The album, one of this year’s best-selling titles around the world, contains no parental warning sticker indicating that it includes explicit or potentially offensive lyrics. Sources say that officials at Maverick and Warner Bros. determined that the album’s lyrics did not merit a parental advisory.

Nevertheless, the companies, with Prodigy’s approval, manufactured an alternate version of the record’s artwork--one that obscured the word “bitch” on the CD jacket--to be sold to mass merchants that refuse to stock albums with lyrics or cover art they deem objectionable.

Wal-Mart, Kmart and other mass merchandisers refuse to carry recordings with parental warning stickers. The companies do not have their own lyric review committees, but rely on record companies and distributors to identify potentially offensive music. Typically, record companies sanitize potentially offensive songs for mass merchandisers by bleeping out obscene language and toning down racy artwork.

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The amended version of Prodigy’s album artwork was shipped to Wal-Mart and other mass merchandisers, but contained a CD with exactly the same lyrics as the original album. When it was called to their attention, Wal-Mart and Kmart officials listened to the recording and decided the lyrics to “Smack My Bitch Up” would offend its customers.

“This thing should have been stickered product, and, if it had been, we would have never carried it to begin with,” said Kmart spokesman Dennis Wigent.

Sources said that about 700,000 copies of the amended album have been sold to U.S. retailers since April. It is unclear how many of those records were sold to Wal-Mart and Kmart, but both companies said they plan to cancel reorders for more copies and ship back whatever they pull off the shelves. A representative for Target said the Minneapolis-based discount chain was reviewing Prodigy’s lyrics on Friday and would make a decision about it next week.

Thousands of independent record stores and record retail chains, such as Musicland and Tower, have no intention of pulling the Prodigy album or single. They note that the lyrics on Prodigy’s recordings are no worse than any of dozens of stickered albums containing violent and sexually explicit lyrics released by Time Warner and its competitors.

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“Smack” also continues to be played uncensored on about a dozen stations across the nation, including KROQ, the top rock station in Los Angeles. By contrast, KKBT, the top hip-hop station in Los Angeles, voluntarily bleeps violent and sexually explicit words--including “bitch"--in every rap song it broadcasts.


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